What we need are sticker charts

For New Year’s 2019, I made a resolution and mostly kept it. Hold your applause. I have always, always been a New Year’s Resolution person. I think they are worth making and I take them seriously, and that is one of the few things in life I will fight you on. In December 2018, I realized that I had stopped exercising almost completely. I had just finished a busy first semester of graduate school, and I was feeling a little sluggish and not myself. My days were almost always full, and exercise felt less urgent than academic deadlines and less appealing than watching New Girl on my laptop in bed, so it got swept under the rug. It’s not that I didn’t want, somewhere deep inside of me, to exercise; it’s not that I didn’t believe that exercising was a good choice to make for my life. It’s just that, most days, my best intentions couldn’t quite overcome the external pressure of school and my personal desire to be relaxed and comfortable as often as possible.

So: New Year’s Resolution 2019 was an exercise resolution. I wish, for the sake of keeping things interesting, it was something more original – but there you have it. I’ve failed to keep plenty of New Year’s Resolutions before, but I was serious about this one. I knew that since my days were busy (and working out is hard, especially when your muscles have been on vacation for the last few months), I needed some infrastructure if this was ever going to catch on.  After I wrote, “work out 4x / week” on my list of New Year’s Resolutions, I got myself organized.

First, and because I had just finished a semester of having my head stuffed with psychology, I made up an operational definition for working out. I decided what I was going to consider “exercise”. I set my bar low and attainable. Any amount of time doing something exercise-y above and beyond what I normally did in a day would be called “exercise”.

I try not to give out too much unsolicited advice, but I’ll hit you with this one because I think it’s important: sticker charts. They are for children and they are also for anyone who needs to get something done. I wanted to work out 4 times each week for all of 2019, so I printed out monthly calendars for all of 2019. Actually, I made the calendars myself so they would look nice hanging on my wall all year. I wrote specific motivational thoughts on each month. I bought the perfect sheet of tiny, shiny star stickers, and on the way home from the store I told myself that I could stick a star to the number of every day of the month that I exercised.

Throughout the year, I brought the star stickers and calendar pages with me everywhere. They hung where I could see them from my bed in one room, and then I moved them to a spot above my desk when I moved houses. I folded them and stuck them in my bag when I traveled. I kept sticking stars on every number of day that I exercised, and I cannot stress enough the power the stickers had to get me to do a couple squats when I didn’t want to.

Although a lot of my exercising can be attributed to the sticker chart, my friend Amelia deserves some credit as well. We both signed up for a research study at our university for the month of February. For the study, we were forced to exercise four times every week, with a group of other research participants, while being supervised by the person conducting the study. What I’m saying is, we would have had to actively run away and hide from these people (especially the girl whose dissertation depended on our data) in order to not exercise during that time. February was covered. When the study was over, we kept meeting up to exercise together. It’s a lot harder to walk right past the gym without going in when you know there’s someone in there waiting for you.

For me, resolutions and good intentions get all their power from practical, everyday routines and disciplines, from planning ahead and accountability. I don’t think I’ve ever had a feeling or conviction strong enough to keep me doing something challenging for the long haul.

Right now, we are in a couple of weeks where many of us are making resolutions. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd brought a long-standing problem of systemic racism to public consciousness, and so we’ve seen marches and protests, we’ve read countless social media posts and news articles about what we should and should not do and what’s really the right way to solve systemic and individual racism. And because of it, many people want to do something. I am the exact opposite of an expert on all of this. I am not a voice who should be telling anyone what’s the right, best, moral, etc. thing to do right now. I do, however, know that a lot of us want to start doing new things now that we weren’t doing before, and I think I know a little bit about how to rig your life so you keep showing up and doing something.

I am a resolution optimist. I support new intentions: to read books, have hard conversations, become informed, effect change in our workplaces, self-reflect, and all the other things that matter that we want to start (or continue) doing. However, I think that we may be easily lost or sidetracked unless we approach the new things we want to add to our lives with effort and intention.

Adding new practices to our lives will take effort. Things will come up that seem more pressing and important, and things will come up that seem easier and more fun. When that happens, I think that the plans and routines and accountability that we have created ahead of time will be what keep us going, more than our good intentions or the way we feel right now, as we resolve to do things.

So, some more unsolicited advice and just about my only helpful thoughts right now: I think I, and anyone like me, might need sticker charts, to meet up with a friend weekly to talk about what we’re reading, to click and drag a block of time on Google Calendar called “self-reflection activity” or “listen to podcast” the week before. Whatever it is you and I feel compelled to do, I think using our desire to act to make a plan for how we’re going to keep doing a new thing one month, six months, and several years from now could be the right move. Feeling convicted and moved to action in this moment is, I believe, good and right – but let’s not stop there. Do whatever silly, extra, scheduled, detailed thing it takes to keep you going. (And you make a sticker chart, now or ever, PLEASE send me a picture!)

One thought on “What we need are sticker charts

  1. I know a sticker chart works because of a similar thing that I do. i have charted my exercise’ activity for several years now. It’s a performance chart that charts my every other day workout. I write the number of repetitions I do in the space that defines the activity on the date it occurs. Unlike your busy days, I have very little that prevents my working out.

    Liked by 1 person

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